SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 5th July, 2016
Sometimes, human beings get it right and create a piece of perfection that stands in contrast to the countless ways we have screwed up on this planet. Such a piece is the flawless 1952 film, Singin’ in the Rain. You only have to watch it to have your faith in our species renewed.
I’ve seen stage adaptations before and while the quality of the performers has been unquestionable, I always come away with a ‘Why bother?’ look on my face.
Not so the case with this new production, on which the New Vic has collaborated with Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and the Salisbury Playhouse. This is feel-good theatre to the max. There is the added bonus of the New Vic’s in-the-round setting; we are in the rain along with the cast – some of us more than others (bright yellow ponchos are provided!). There is an intimacy here the proscenium arch cannot deliver. Ciaran Bagnall’s stylised set is basically a circle, above which art deco screens play the movies the characters make. Around the circle, cast members play instruments, providing the score and the accompaniment to whomever is singing at the time. They’re a versatile bunch and under Richard Reeday’s musical direction, form a tight ensemble with an authentic Roaring Twenties sound.
Matthew Croke absolutely dazzles as movie idol Don Lockwood – the Gene Kelly role. He has the dreamboat good looks, the rich crooning voice and, of course, the moves. I could watch him all night. When the iconic title song comes at the end of the first act, it’s perfect. Croke glides and splashes around and the front few rows get a soaking – it’s equally elegant, beautiful and uproariously funny. What we lose in scenic devices, we gain in good old slapstick!
Christian Edwards makes Cosmo, the wacky friend (the Donald O’Connor role) his own, with an energised performance that keeps on the right side of charming. Eleanor Brown is a striking Kathy (the Debbie Reynolds role), with clarity and purity in her vocals, and a sober contrast to Sarah Vezmar’s deliciously monstrous Lina Lamont, the egotistic villain of the piece with a voice like fingernails down a Brooklyn blackboard. Vezmar almost steals the show but for the stellar quality of handsome hoofer Croke, whose performance is truly phenomenal.
There is not a weak link in the whole shebang. Philip Starnier amuses as movie producer R. F. Simpson; Helen Power sparkles as professional gossip Dora Bailey; cast members come and go in a range of roles, adding to the fun, the atmosphere and, above all, the music. The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, some of which predate even the film by decades, sound fresh – Reeday’s arrangements bring out the romance as well as the fun. Within a tight performance space, Sian Williams’s choreography emulates Gene Kelly’s, managing to be scaled down without being cramped. The auditorium fills with talent and its genuinely thrilling to be present, to be so close to such an accomplished company. Stardust sprinkles on us all, even more than the water.
Director Elizabeth Newman gives us another look at the charm of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay, wisely keeping her cast from aping the stars of the film. The show both meets and exceeds expectations, due to its focus on theatricality rather than the fool’s errand of trying to reproduce cinematic perfection.
As refreshing as a summer shower, this production brings undiluted joy. My only regret is that it wasn’t raining when I left the theatre; I really wanted to splash about in puddles for myself. In these dark and uncertain times, we must seize our pleasures where we may, however simple, and life-affirming shows like this have never been more welcome.